I left a town where fewer than a thousand people lived. I traveled half the world, in the middle of a war, to get away from there. By the spring of 1943, when I finally arrived at a lonely airfield among the hills of Yorkshire, it seemed I had gone as far from Kakabeka as the moon was from the earth. But the first thing I saw when I walked through the door of the sergeants’ mess was a guy I knew from home.
He was standing beside the piano, and I saw him only from the back, but I knew right away it was Donny Lee. No one else had hair as red as that, or ears as wide as those. No one but Donny looked so much like a clown from the back.
I thought of running away, but there was nowhere to go. I wanted to hide, but I couldn’t. Lofty and Ratty and Buzz had come in behind me, filling the door of the Nissen hut. I just stood with my duffel bag in my hand as Donny turned toward me.
Just then, for a moment, I thought that it wasn’t him after all, that it was someone older by many years. His face was a man’s, with wrinkles and lines and dark blotches below his eyes. He couldn’t be the boy I had seen just two years before, grinning as he climbed on an eastbound train. But his head started back in surprise and his mouth opened wide, and it was Donny, all right. He shouted across the crowd of airmen, “Hey! It’s the kid from Kakabeka.”
“Donny!” I said. I dropped my bag and pushed away from Lofty and the others. The tin hut was full of smoke and noise, of laughter and a dreadful singing. I pushed my way through groups of fliers, desperate to reach the piano, to get to Donny before he blurted out my secret.
He kept shouting in a voice that was too loud, as though he had gone deaf as well as old. “It is!” he cried. “It’s the Kid. It’s the Kakabeka Kid!”
He had never called me that at home, and I wished he would stop it now. He was too much older and wilder than me, and we’d never really been friends. But now he threw his arms around my shoulders and hugged me like a brother. He turned me round and introduced me to his crew.
In all of England only Donny knew the truth about me, and I was sure he’d tell the others. But all he said was that we’d gone to the same crummy school in the same little town. He said that he had been my hero, which wasn’t exactly true. Then he steered me behind the bar and backed me into the corner made by the storage room.
“Hey, Donny,” I said. “How many ops have you got?”
He didn’t even answer. He pinned my shoulders to the wall and asked me, “What are you doing here?”
“What do you think?” I said.
“You stupid kid.” He thrust his face near mine, and his voice was angry. “You’re only sixteen.”
If he had said it any louder, everyone would have learned the truth right there on my first day. But all the sergeants were busy with their bottles and their glasses, not even looking at me anymore. Lofty and little Ratty, still in the doorway, were gawking round the hut like tourists at a zoo, while Buzz just looked as half-witted as ever.
Donny lowered his voice, but didn’t back away. His breath smelled of beer; his eyes seemed strange. “Go home,” he said. “Tell them you lied and you want to go home.”
“You’re nuts,” I told him.
“Do it.” He pushed me again, so hard that the wall rattled. “Now. Before it’s too late.”
He grabbed my sleeve and twisted it round my arm. He stared at the blue patch where a fist held a sheaf of lightning bolts, then down at the cloud-shaped badge of a warrant officer. “Man, oh man,” he said. “You must have told some beautiful lies.”
He was right; I’d told some good ones. I’d invented years of school and made myself an orphan. The only real things in my life anymore were the patch and the badge, and I was proud as a peacock to have them. I yanked the cloth from his fingers.
“Does your old man know you’re here?” asked Donny.
“I doubt he knows I’ve gone,” I said. “It’s only been eight months.” I tried to make a joke of it. “But just wait till he sobers up, eh?”
Donny stared at me so intently that I looked away, down at his tunic and tie. I saw a pair of wings on his chest, and my single one didn’t seem so grand anymore. I envied Donny; I had wanted so much to be a pilot.
“I should tell them,” he said. “I should go to the CO right now and—”
“No! Donny, don’t.” I raised my voice too high, and it broke into an embarrassing squeak. Faces turned toward us; conversations stopped. Over by the door, Lofty frowned at Buzz, then started walking toward me. I put my hand on Donny’s arm and begged him, “Please don’t tell. Nobody knows the truth.”
He looked suddenly sad, and I saw how really deep his wrinkles were. He had aged like a dog, seven years for each of the two since I’d seen him. Just then—half angry, half sad—he looked a lot like my old man.
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked.
“You’ll get the chop,” he said.
“You will. It’s always the sprogs who buy the farm.”
“Well, not me. Not us.” I tipped my head toward the door. “Lofty’s the best there is. And anyway—”
“All right, Kid.” He straightened up; he took his hands away. “Come and see me when you change your mind.”
“You won’t tell?” I asked.
“No. You’re on your own.”
“Then swear,” I told him. “Swear to God.”
He shook his head. “You’ll fly an op or two, then beg me to get you out.”
“Just do it,” I said. “Swear.”
And he did. I made him cross his heart and spit on his hand. Then he waved me off, with the same flick of his fingers that would have chased the deerflies back at home. “You’d better totter along and see Uncle Joe.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“The CO. He likes to meet all the sprogs.”
Air force words were like music to me, but that one I hated. It made me blush, even though it was true; I was a sprog, a greenhorn.
Donny turned his back and disappeared into the swirl of blue just as Lofty came out of it. He was the tallest bloke I’d ever known, and I really felt like a kid as I looked way up at his face. Because of his height, and because he was almost twenty, I had always thought of him as an adult. But now, compared to Donny and the sergeants in the mess, he looked a bit silly, like an actor in a school play, only trying to look older.
“That chap,” he said. “I say, was he binding you, old boy?” Lofty was Canadian too. He had been in England no longer than me, in the air force just a month or two more. But he talked like an old hand, trotting out the airmen’s slang whenever he could, and he sometimes mumbled through his nose, trying to sound more British than the Brits. “What was that he called you? Kaka what?”
“Beka,” I said with a sigh. “Kakabeka, okay?”
He had never heard of the place. I had told him and everyone else that my hometown was Port Arthur. He laughed and said, “I’ll just call you Kid.”